July 18, 2017
Taking on the Fourth Estate –Trump, Saudi Arabia and The Free Press
by Azmi Sharom@www.thestar.com.my
What’s the real reason for the demand that Qatar shut down the Al Jazeera Arabic channel?
WHAT is the similarity between Donald Trump and the Saudi Government?Well, apart from a penchant for sword dancing, they both have taken a hard line on the free press.
Both have taken different levels of action, though. Trump, being the type of person that he is, reacts with thin-skinned petulance when the press say things he disagrees with or when they criticise him. His fingers will reach for his phone and tweets will come flying out as fast as his little digits can type.
These tweets are in equal measure childish, misogynistic and – how shall I put this delicately – lacking in any sort of sophistication. He has, however, upped the ante recently by having a video of him “wrestling” posted.
This is an old video from when he was merely a media mogul and had some sort of role in the WWE and it was, of course, staged. The thing is the video has been changed a bit with the wrestler’s face superimposed with a CNN logo.
So far, so infantile. It’s a bit less funny when you think that recently a Republican candidate actually body-slammed a journalist from The Guardian because he did not like his line of questioning. A strangely prescient wrestling move that Trump applauded. Of course.
The American press feel a little under siege and nervous because they argue that what their President is doing is essentially saying it’s OK to attack the press and their members, even in a physical way.
Of course, one could pooh-pooh this as a bunch of entitled journos being a bit limp.
After all, unlike many journalists around the world, the Americans do not suffer governments who actually have oppressive laws and the lack of ethics to use those laws against the press. Nor are they subject to brutal murders and other acts of serious violence.
Still, knowing how some Trump supporters are – again, how shall I put this delicately – simple, I suppose these concerns can be given some credence.
The situation is somewhat different in the Middle East. The Saudis and their allies are attacking Qatar, at the moment only economically. The reason is ostensibly that Qatar is supporting terror groups.
The rights and wrongs of this claim are not the subject of discussion here.
Neither will I discuss the irony of a country that exports a most literalist brand of Islam, which provides the ideological grist for terrorist mills, calling another nation supporters of terror.
The point I want to talk about is that among the terms that the Saudis have made on the Qataris if they want the blockade lifted, is that Qatar must shut down their news channel, Al Jazeera Arabic (AJA).
Here’s the thing though: is that really the reason for it or is it because AJA is the only Arabic-language news channel that is consistently critical of the governments (mostly unelected) in the Middle East?
That they provide aspirations for democratic governance and civil liberties, and that they give space to voices which would normally be suppressed in the Arab world?
At the end of the day, I think it boils down to simply this: there are governments and leaders that do not like being criticised and they will do all that they can to shut the media up.
They will try to justify their attacks on the press, whether it be by screaming “fake news” in every other sentence, or by claiming that the media is biased against them, thus casting aspersions on the validity of reports; they can use laws to cower the press; or they can go the whole hog by threatening war.
And what is the press to do? Roll over and play dead? Merely think of their livelihoods and their shareholders? Or does it keep striving and pushing? Does it keep on working in a professional, well researched, impartial manner, to provide news that can be relied on?
Because in this age of the Internet, there is a lot of rubbish floating around, and as retro as this may sound, the mainstream press (and by this I mean all journalistic endeavours that are professional and working within the ethical boundaries of their profession, including online news portals) is still vitally important.
If the media does not play their role as the Fourth Estate properly, the question then is, what is their purpose?